Digging Deeper

A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

by Ryan Eikenbary-Barber

Growing up, I thought I knew a lot about Seattle, Washington. Though I was raised in the suburbs, I thought of Seattle as my hometown. My grandparents lived in the city, my parents worked in the city, and we drove downtown on Sundays to go to church. My mom ran an art gallery in Pioneer Square, the oldest section of town. As a little boy, I rode the bus into town on Saturdays to buy comic books at Pike Place Market and to visit my mom at work. Compared with suburban friends, I knew Seattle very well.

One day my Cub Scout troop went into the city to learn about the history of Seattle. We visited the original Skid Row, where Minnesota Timber Baron, James J. Hill, rolled logs into the Puget Sound, we watched the fisherman toss salmon at the Pike Place Market, and we saw many tourist sights. I had seen these things and wasn’t really impressed until we entered a small, nondescript building with a sign advertising tours of Underground Seattle.

Our guide took us down a long stairwell to a musty, dingy sidewalk. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a subterranean ghost town of rickety old buildings. “This,” said the guide, “used to be Seattle.”

In 1889, a great fire tore through the city and destroyed almost every building. Rather than cleaning up the mess, the people of Seattle decided to build a new city on top of the old city. They cut down hills and piled the dirt on top of the charred buildings and left a few old city streets underneath that you can visit today. I was amazed to learn of a whole depth to Seattle that I hadn’t known existed. Mom surprised me when she told me that we had walked right under her art gallery. I realized I barely knew Seattle. I had only scratched the surface of my hometown.

We often get caught up in familiar things and deeper meanings escape us. We can’t see the forest for the trees. The truth is not a secret. Everyone can know the truth if they desire it, but sometimes we miss the big picture because of the close-up right in front of us.

Today’s Gospel lesson is the story of four friends who dig deep for the hidden treasure of grace. Because they want their friend, a paralyzed man, to walk again, they destroy private property and make a spectacle of themselves. They take the risk of faith. It is also the story of Jesus who, when confronted by the outrageous faith of these friends, digs deep into the situation. He sees more than just a paralyzed man, he sees a person and offers the man more grace than anyone expected.

So many people had gathered that there was no more room. Along came four men carrying a paralyzed man. When they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they took him up on the roof, dug through it, and let him down on his mat. Jesus saw their faith and said to the paralytic: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Some of the scribes questioned in their hearts: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived there thoughts and said to them:

“Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’ But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”

And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Archeologists understand digging deeper. Many archeologists spend a career shoveling out a single pit. If lucky, they find small bones and pottery shards that will later be reassembled. The further they go down into the earth, the older the artifacts. As they find increasingly older objects, the story of the community over a long period of time emerges. The deeper they dig, the more they learn. What the archeologists do is much like faith. Blind to what may be hidden under the earth, they dig in hopeful expectation. The difference is that people as archeologists will never discover a treasure as wonderful as the grace discovered by faith.

In the film Jesus of Nazareth, today’s Gospel story takes place at Peter’s house. The actor playing St. Peter gets quite upset about the damage to his roof. The roofs of Capernaum were made with wooden crossbeams covered with mud and straw. Every fall, before the winter rains, the roof was replenished with new reeds and new muck. Though a big surprise when the four lowered their paralyzed friend in from the roof, no permanent damage was done.

Getting their friend to Jesus was not easy. Getting the paralyzed man up required four strong men and digging through the straw and mud was a messy job. Likely they were exhausted when they finally got their friend in front of Jesus. Jesus must have smiled. Perhaps he was talking about faith that day and the four dropped the perfect illustration in front of him. Mark was so interested in the faith of these four friends that he forgot to tell us about the sermon of the day. Typical! Another sermon no one can remember!

But we all remember the faith of these friends. Jesus, impressed with their initiative, welcomed them. He liked these guys who dug a little deeper than expected. He watched them break social barriers, he watched them break conventions of the day, he watched them break and enter as evidence of their faith. I’m sure that Jesus was wishing there were more like them.

How the paralytic felt while all this was going on? Perhaps he didn’t like being taken from a comfortable resting place and dropped down a hole in search of healing. If so, the faith of his friends was enough. Sometimes digging deeper means having faith for our loved ones who are paralyzed with sadness, sin, or indifference.

There are no boundaries able to contain this kind of faith. No one can stand by unaffected when encountering it. Lives are changed; people are healed. This kind of faith goes digging deeper and deeper until it finds what it was looking for. The faith of the four friends surprised even Jesus.

The Son of God let them interrupt his sermon, but not upstage the Gospel. Jesus responded in a more tremendous way than even these heroes of faith could have hoped. He decides to do a little digging of his own. Jesus has more healing to offer than the ability to walk, he teaches them about grace.

Unexpectedly, Jesus says: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Heads turned! Suddenly the hole in the roof wasn’t such a big deal. “He didn’t just say that, did he?” Maybe the four friends were themselves scandalized by the words. Only God could forgive sins! The scribes in the room had reason to be upset. Surely this was blasphemy. The Chief Priest could make a sacrifice on behalf of the people, but only God could pardon sin. Jesus made it clear that he was not just a wonderworker, but God Himself! This is a lot more radical than climbing in through the roof.

The guys on the roof aren’t worried about sin, they are interested in healing, but Jesus digs deeper than the surface issue of paralysis. Some scholars suggest that this man is suffering from a “hysterical nervous condition to an overactive guilty conscience that caused psychosomatic paralysis.” In other words, the man is not really paralyzed, he’s frozen by guilt. Some people find the miracle is easier to swallow if there is a medical solution to the healing.

Though such a person is trying too hard to rationalize the Gospel, he does remind us that there is a connection between mind and body. In the past few years medical schools have started to talk about alternative medicines. Insurance companies are actually paying for acupuncture, aroma therapy, music therapy, and other soul-care activities. It’s normal once again to connect spiritual health with Physical well-being.

People of biblical time assumed physical health was related to spiritual life. Jesus had to explain that God does not curse sinners with poor health. The mission of Jesus was to save people from all forms of evil, including sickness and death. Jesus came to redeem a sinful world, signaling the end of disease and misery.

Jesus came to heal everything that harms God’s creation. The sick and the suffering were especially dear to him because they were in the greatest need of help. It’s not that Jesus thought the paralyzed man in today’s story was particularly sinful. He saw this healing as a special opportunity to dig a little deeper and give much more than was asked of him. Jesus forgave before healing because he wanted the whole town to know that Gospel was making people right with God both physically and spiritually. He started with forgiveness because he wanted to make the wideness of God’s mercy clear to everyone.

This is the meaning of grace—God is restoring the world into wholeness. While the four friends merely wanted their buddy to walk again, Jesus offered reconciliation with God. Grace is so much more than we ask it to be, if we are only bold enough to dig just a little bit deeper.

Scribes get rough treatment in the Gospels. They usually walk away from the miracles of Jesus angry and confused. But in today’s text we are told that “all were amazed and glorified God saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!”’ The paralyzed man picked up his mat and walked away and the scribes joined in the cheering. The message is important—anyone can be saved by God’s grace. If the scribes, four vandals, and a paralyzed man can have a happy ending, you can too. Dig into Christian faith and you will discover the mother load of God’s grace. This simple truth can change your life. It has made all the difference in my life.